The apotheosis of Nelson was already well under way in 1836, when one George Gunning, of Frindsbury in Kent, presented a snuffbox to the Fitzwilliam Museum. Books, prints, portraits, medals and ceramics preserved the great naval hero in the public eye: and the ‘new street from Charing Cross to Portland Place’ which the architect John Nash had begun in 1812, and which transformed the cityscape, was officially named ‘Trafalgar Square’ in 1830 (though Nelson’s Column was not installed until 1843 nor the Landseer lions until 1867).
The three-volume ‘official’ biography, The Life and Services of Horatio Viscount Nelson: From His Lordship’s Manuscripts, published 1809 in by the editors of the Naval Chronicle, James Stanier Clarke and John McArthur, was a huge success, and was reissued in a new edition in 1840.
By 1813, Robert Southey, the newly appointed Poet Laureate, had stated in the opening to his own two-volume biography: ‘Many Lives of Nelson have been written’.
What he felt was lacking was one ‘clear and concise enough to become a manual for the young sailor, which he may carry about with him till he has treasured it up for example in his memory and in his heart’.
And when the seven-volume edition of The Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, compiled by Sir Nicholas Harrison Nicolas (a specialist in genealogy and heraldry but a former naval officer), was published between 1844 and 1846, there was no sign of any abatement in the enthusiasm for this supreme hero.
In 1836, when Gunning made his donation, the Fitzwilliam Museum was not yet built, and the paintings, prints, manuscripts and other items bequeathed to the University in 1816 by Viscount Fitzwilliam were mostly in storage, though some were on display, first in the hall of the Perse Grammar School in Free School Lane (now the Whipple Museum of the History Science), where S.T. Coleridge viewed them in 1833, and from 1842 in the Old Schools, whence they were moved to their permanent home in 1846.
The accession records of the Museum reveal that people were making donations of various sorts as early as 1817: for example, Dr E.D. Clarke gave six drawings of (probably) Venetian street vendors, attributed to Gaetano Gherardo Zompini (1700-78), found by him ‘at Tornea in the north of the Gulf of Bothnia’. Torneå (Tornio) today is in Finland, very close to the Swedish border: what a journey for the drawings to have made! Edward Daniel Clarke (1769–1822) was an antiquary, mineralogist, travel writer, and alumnus (like Coleridge) of Jesus College, Cambridge, and many of his sculptural and epigraphic finds from Greece and Turkey, presented to the University, were originally displayed in the University Library and elsewhere around the Old Schools.
(Clarke was the younger brother of James Stanier Clarke, mentioned above, who was also royal historiographer, and showed Jane Austen round the Prince Regent’s library at Carlton House. Poor man, his heavy hints that her next novel should have a hero not unlike himself led to amusement which found an outlet in Austen’s ‘Plan of a Novel’.)
It seems likely that the designation of Fitzwilliam’s planned institution as a museum (rather than an art gallery) both gave the University the opportunity for rehousing quite a lot of Stuff, and encouraged the public at large to make donations of items which might more properly have figured in an old-fashioned cabinet of curiosities, or something like the Tradescant collection which later transmuted into the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
For example, an early donor was ‘Miss Whitehurst of Hertford’, who bestowed 45 items upon the museum: in 1834, she gave inter alia a ‘piece of Pyrenees string’, a quilting frame and an Roman stiletto, and, crucially, a rolled paper picture of the coat-of-arms of the Rev. Thomas Whitehurst, dated 1699 and framed in 1832.
This gift identifies her as Miss Sarah Hitchin Whitehurst, who died in 1837, and was, I assume, the daughter of another Thomas Whitehurst, of London, who (according to the invaluable Venn) matriculated at Peterhouse in 1752, and married Miss Hitchin of Hitchin, Herts. They had at least two sons, Richard Hitchin, who went to St Catharine’s in 1778 and died (as vicar of Westoning, Beds.) in 1823, and John, who also matriculated at Peterhouse (from Hertford school) in 1779, and died in 1832. One wonders if the deaths of these Cambridge-connected brothers led her to donate family possessions to the Museum?
In 1836, she gave ceramics, including a beautiful blue-and-white Chinese punchbowl (presumably export ware), a stoneware teapot from Ysing (YiXing), then as now a centre of teapot manufacture, and several pieces of jewellery.
The pottery made me wonder if she was a distant relation of the Whitehurst family of Staffordshire, one of whom (another John) was an engineer working on the mechanisation of pottery decoration, and an associate of Wedgwood, but this is probably too tenuous.
Her rather random gifts bring me back to George Gunning, his snuffbox, and Lord Nelson. The box is of oak, lined with silver, and the wood is believed to have come from the very timbers of H.M.S. Victory. A cynic would remark that (rather like relics of the True Cross) if all the wooden mementoes from this source were piled up they would bulk rather larger than the original ship, but this particular piece has a good provenance. George Gunning (1783–1849) lived in Frindsbury, Kent, where he must have been aware of the shipyard at which the famous ‘Billy Ruffian’ was built.
He had been a lieutenant in the Dragoon Guards, had fought at Waterloo (where he was seriously injured), and was a local magistrate, but for our purposes it is his marriage in 1831 that is significant. His wife, Sarah Tournay Bargrave, was the widow of Sir Thomas Staines (1776–1830), the distinguished naval officer who, after much active service in the Mediterranean (where he lost his left arm up to the shoulder in 1809), discovered Alexander Smith (alias John Adams), the last survivor of the Bounty mutineers, as well many of their descendants, on Pitcairn Island in 1814.
Sarah died in 1832, and it seems clear that Gunning inherited her personal possessions, including a stirrup hilted dress sword, first possessed by Sir Thomas, engraved ‘George Gunning Esqre. to Captn. Joseph Nias R.N. 1832’, now in the National Maritime Museum, and our snuffbox, which is engraved on the inside of the lid, ‘Presented to / THE FITZWILLIAM MUSEUM. / Cambridge / BY GEORGE GUNNING ESQR / of Frindsbury. Kent. / 1836’. An earlier silver plaque on the base records its original presentation: ‘The Countess Mengden. / TO / Captn. Thos. Staines / R.N. K.G.B.’
Unfortuntely, the relevant Countess Mengden is proving a little elusive. The von Mengden family were Baltic Germans, living in Courland (now part of Latvia) and intermarrying with other Balt families. As was normal in German lands, all offspring took the title of the parent, so all were Grafs or Gräfins, counts or countesses. The will, dated 22 August 1848, of ‘The Right Honorable Sophie Elisabeth Von Plettenberg or Countess Von Mengden, Dowager of The Hague, Holland’, and widow of the late Count Gottard Johann von Mengden, is in the National Archives.
The Plettenbergs were another ancient Baltic German family, and this lady’s dates (1760–1848) make sense. She owned property in and around London (Pentonville and Kensington), and her solicitor was John Scargill, of 2 Halton Court, Threadneedle Street, London. Extraordinarily, given that she was both titled (albeit foreign) and wealthy, I haven’t (yet) been able to find out much about her – certainly not how she had come by the souvenir of England’s greatest hero that she gave to Sir Thomas Staines, which passed to his widow’s next husband, and from him to the growing (if slightly eccentric) collection of applied arts in the Fitzwilliam Museum.